‘Frankenstein Dreams’: When Sci-fi Lumbered into the Victorian Era

Did the Victorians deal with their rapidly changing society better than civilization today is dealing with equally new dizzying discoveries?

Michael Sims opens his book Frankenstein Dreams: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Science Fiction with a quote that is probably as true now as it was in 1818: “Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”

The quote comes from Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (and not surprisingly comes from the “monster” who arguably has more common sense than does his creator).

Whether or not Frankenstein is the very first work of science fiction is debatable. That said, it is arguably the book that opens the modern era of science fiction and introduces many of the archetypes found in more current science fiction (most notably the idea of the mad scientist and as a cautionary tale about the powers and dangers of scientific discoveries). A complicated and mythic book—it’s almost hard to imagine it was written by a teenager.

For these reasons and others (including, as Sims notes, the enduring popularity of the story) Frankenstein is a perfect starting point for this book—an anthology that is both meant to celebrate the genre of science fiction and to “chronicle how Western civilization responded to the dizzying new discoveries of the nineteenth century”.

There is much to celebrate in terms of 19th century science fiction. Most likely even the most tepid sci-fi fan is already familiar with the contributions H.G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Jules Verne made to the genre. Other familiar names, but names not necessarily connected with science fiction include Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, and Arthur Conan Doyle. Some names—such as E. Nesbit and Grant Allen—may be less familiar but their contributions are no less notable.

Sims includes a lot of great stories (as well as excerpts from longer works such as Frankenstein, Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, The Island of Dr. Moreau and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea). They, along with the brief introduction Sims provides for each, are fun to read. Still—what might be most interesting, though, is reading them as a collection and attempting to see what’s changed—and what hasn’t.

One thing that has changed is that most contemporary science fiction isn’t mistaken for news—today fake news seems much more about politics rather than whether or not someone spied life on the moon or has been mesmerized. As Sims notes, Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”, a story that focuses on mesmerism, was “often mistaken for an actual case history”.

Some of the science has changed—we don’t see many science fiction stories about traveling to the moon or discoveries that allow us to “hear” the past. Other times, though, the science seems much more modern, such as with Alice W. Fuller’s “A Wife Manufactured to Order” which, as the title suggests, shows a world where someone can purchase a pleasant albeit robotic “companion for life for a few hundred dollars”. Many of the somewhat mad scientists found in the book along with things like the genetic manipulations found in “Monsters Manufactured” also don’t seem that far removed from the science fiction of the 20th (or even the 21st) century.

E. Nesbit (the E stands for Edith) seems somewhat ahead of her time with Lucilla, a character in “The Five Senses”, who apparently breaks things off with her scientist fiancé because of their differing opinions on animal testing: “They’re all God’s creatures” Lucilla tells him. Even after he relates “Spencer Wells, that operation he perfected, it’s restored thousands of women to their husbands—saved thousands of women for their children”, Lucilla simply responds with a sentiment that would resonate with many today: “I don’t care what he’s done — it’s wrong if it’s done that [by torturing rabbits] way.”

Amazon’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle has perhaps brought attention back to the alternative history genre of science fiction, and Sims includes a sampling from this area as well. Edward Page Mitchell’s “The Senator’s Daughter” is a story that “casually envisions an America in which the Chinese have won a war with the United States and characters communicate by personal radio, travel from New York to Washington, D.C., via fast pneumatic tubes, dine on pills of condensed nutrition… and argue the virtues of the Mongol-Vegetarian political party.”

Sims definitely achieves his goal: “to chronicle how Western civilization responded to the dizzying new discoveries of the nineteenth century.” This goal, however, leads to a question: How did Western civilization respond? Granted, all we have here is a sampling (although a very nice sampling) from the 19th century, but using this collection as a guide, it appears they responded to these new discoveries with wit, thought, a lot of good writing and often not a lot of scientific detail.

Did the Victorians deal with their rapidly changing society better than civilization today is dealing with equally new dizzying discoveries? That’s a hard question to answer, but perhaps it’s somewhat comforting to know that those living in the 21st century aren’t the first ones (and most likely won’t be the last) to struggle with new technologies and discoveries.

RATING 8 / 10